Tuesday, June 07, 2011


In the late summer of 1999, I went on a trip to the mountains of Bolivia. I mentally prepared for the trip by watching Ron Fricke’s film CHRONOS almost every night for a couple of months. For those who don’t know, CHRONOS is a 45-minute IMAX feature using time-lapsed photography to contrast the pace of life in urban Western civilization with the pace of life in the natural world. I remember especially the shadows. Shadows moving across the faces of ancient Greek statues seem to change expressions of pride and accomplishment into expressions of loss and acceptance. Shadows of clouds rolling through the deserts of the American Southwest look like the ghosts of dead Indians, united with the land.

It’s almost impossible to watch the film without reflecting on one’s own mortality, with alternating feelings of invigoration and sadness… and, above all, a profound sense of awe. To me, Fricke’s other (better-known) films, KOYAANASQATSI and BARAKA, are a little more cerebral. They engage the brain, whereas CHRONOS mostly engages the senses. Breathtaking visuals and haunting music (by Craig Stearns) fully convey the impression that words are obsolete.

A few years ago, when I was preparing for a trip to India, I watched Sofia Coppola’s film LOST IN TRANSLATION with a similar devotion. Coppola obviously thinks in images and vignettes rather than words. This was apparent in her debut film, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, which forgoes the idea of having a single narrative voice in favor of a chorus of voices and a medley of characters. This style is even more apparent in her most recent film, SOMEWHERE, which plays like a long series of moving snapshots. Her films are all about the need for inspiration, but I believe LOST IN TRANSLATION works best because it’s characters are so believably “lost” and so believably inspiring.

I don’t think there’s a single frame of LOST IN TRANSLATION that doesn’t resonate for me emotionally. Bill Murray’s mid-life crisis is apparent from the first scene, where he’s in a cab, staring out in dreamy, jetlagged disbelief at the neon skyline of Tokyo…

... only to bump into a billboard of himself staring back, boldly expressionless.

When I watch it now, I think of Lance Henriksen’s comments about what he calls jetlag movies: “Your body is there, but your soul is still asleep.” The absurdity of Murray's life as a famous actor is repeated again and again: in the shower, in the elevator, and especially in the television studio where he’s making commercial for Japanese whiskey. This is the aging actor as Falstaff, a tragi-comic clown. (One could write an entire book about the actor’s evolution from SNL humor to the soulfulness of THE RAZOR’S EDGE and GROUNDHOG DAY, the situational humor of RUSHMORE and LOST IN TRANSLATION, and finally the self-aware humor of COFFEE & CIGARETTES and ZOMBIELAND.)

Scarlett Johanssen’s quarter-life crisis is equally apparent from a series of images where she’s perched, half-naked, in a window above the sprawling city of Tokyo. Another filmmaker might feel compelled to make her tell us what she’s thinking as she sits there, but that would be self-defeating. It’s better if we put the pieces together for ourselves: She’s young and aimless and lonely in a restless city of roughly 13 million people who speak another language.

In a way, she’s not so different from those ancient statues in CHRONOS. When she’s surrounded by other people (even Bill Murray, at first), she appears proud and accomplished. When she’s alone in that window sill, she’s fading. (On another self-indulgent sidenote, I have to say that I miss this vulnerable side of Scarlett Johanssen. Maybe I just haven’t been watching her best movies, but it seems to me that her recent sexbomb roles are much more depressing than her quarter-life crisis in LOST IN TRANSLATION. She's watched, instead of watching.)

The beauty of the film is that Bill Murray’s mid-life crisis and Scarlett Johanssen’s quarter-life crisis are somehow a perfect match. Even though these two people are complete strangers whose lives could not be more different, they recognize each other as fellow carriers of the "midnight disease" (to borrow Michael Chabon's term from WONDER BOYS)… and, what’s more, they are able and willing to give each other hope in the future. The first time I saw the film, I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite line from George Orwell’s 1984: “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as understood.”

To me, that’s what LOST IN TRANSLATION is about. When you slow down your life to the pace of the natural world, the everyday sound and fury may seem futile… but it doesn't change the fact that lost souls intuitively understand each other, and in that realization there is hope. We’re not entirely alone on this overpopulated rock. Like HAROLD & MAUDE, LOST IN TRANSLATION emerges as more than a love story. It’s a tone poem about spiritual intimacy… and I’m not going to waste any more time trying to explain how or why the best scenes in the film are able to capture that intimacy (though I could easily ramble enthusiastically about a dozen or more scenes), because at a certain point words are inadequate… This is a fact that Sofia Coppola acknowledges beautifully in the final scene in the film.

Just watch.


  1. That makes two of us. I really enjoy the emotional journey of Lost In Translation.

    It's funny how the film was either a hit or a miss for some people.

    I think some people definitely do not connect with Coppola's style.

    I for one really enjoy the stream of consciousness feel of some of the sequences. It's like a dream at times, but I really relate to the characters because they do seem so incredibly lost as you put it.

    Excellent write up of this misunderstood film. best, sff

  2. SFF,

    In a way, Coppola's films seem like "pure cinema" to me... They have relatively straightforward narratives and characterizations, but I feel like they're more about emotional content than story... The emotional content (not just of the characters, but of the storyteller) IS the story...

    I'm rambling again, but I have a feeling you get what I'm driving at.

    I found Coppola's latest film (Somewhere) to be a little underwhelming... It's beautiful at times, but I never quite got lost in the dream the way I did with Lost in Translation. Stephen Dorf and Elle Fanning don't serve the filmmaker's understated storytelling as well as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen did. I suspect it will always be hard for her to top the alchemy of her second film.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. Excellent look at this one, Joe. I think it is Sofia's best film. SFF makes a good point about it being a hit or a miss with some folk. I think it is one that falls along generational lines, for the most part. It contains aspects that are touchstones for many. I can see why it is so inspiring and heartfelt for those younger than I. It's good that you compared it with HAROLD & MAUDE (a film that acquired similar meaning for an older generation). Great examination, my friend (along with some fantastic artwork). Thanks for this.

  4. Leo - You bring up an interesting point. I've never thought of Lost in Translation as a film for a particular generation... but, now that you bring it up, I suppose Lost in Translation could be to Harold & Maude what Garden State is to The Graduate...

  5. Michael -

    Thought you might appreciate this: